meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™
meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™

Contraband Cellphones Flood Ohio Prisons

As we have written about before, wireless airtime and contraband cell phones have become the new prison currency. According to this article, smuggled cell phones in Ohio prisons are “a commodity inside our system,” used to sell and barter, and for personal use, said Vinko Kucinic, the corrections department’s chief security-threat investigator. Gangs, he said, are “power-based. If they can control the contraband trade, they have power.” A cellphone costing $25 on the street can fetch $500-$700 on the prison black market. One way to reduce the value of wireless airtime as prison currency is to co-opt the non-criminal usage by supplying the secure prison cell phone solution offered by meshDETECT.

Illegal drugs, weapons, tobacco and cellphones are flooding Ohio’s prisons, spurring a new wave of violence as rival gangs battle for control of the black market.

The frequency of violent disturbances has doubled since 2008, leading Ohio’s top prison official to launch a study about whether a March 2009 tobacco ban is stirring the trouble.

“Tobacco has become a currency that’s used in our prisons,” Director Gary Mohr of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said.

Ohio’s prisons house more than 50,000 inmates and will cost taxpayers $1.57 billion in fiscal year 2012. Contraband has long been a problem in the prisons, with inmates gaining access to it through the mail, visitors and corrupt prison employees.

But Mohr said something new is happening: People in the outside world have become much bolder about throwing packages of contraband over perimeter fences, where inmates on work details can pick them up. Mohr said that’s especially true at prisons like Dayton Correctional Institution and Allen Correctional in Lima, where prison grounds abut areas accessible to the public.

“All over this country, facilities are being assaulted, almost, by outside people,” he said. “It’s a battle that didn’t exist in the past, certainly (not) to the degree we have it now.”

The ban on tobacco created a new black market, while a younger crop of tech-savvy inmates is also fueling an increasing trade in cellphones and accessories.

Officials say convicts are using smuggled cellphones to continue running outside-world criminal activity from inside prison walls and to coordinate more contraband drops.

That contraband is sparking prison-gang violence, officials say. “It’s a commodity inside our system,” used to sell and barter, and for personal use, said Vinko Kucinic, the corrections department’s chief security-threat investigator. Gangs, he said, are “power-based. If they can control the contraband trade, they have power.”

Mohr, a former Ohio prison official who worked in private-sector prisons for years, said he was “made sick” by the increase in violence he noticed after returning as director in January 2011.

“I could not fathom what was going on in our system,” he said.

The director has ordered his research department to investigate the causes of disturbances involving four inmates or more to see how many are linked to the illicit tobacco trade. He expects results in three or four weeks.

The frequency of those disturbances has jumped on average from one every 28 days in 2008 to one every 14 days in 2010, the first full year after the March 2009 ban, Mohr said. The policy was imposed by Mohr’s predecessor, Terry Collins, in a bid to cut inmate health care costs.

Mohr stopped short of saying he may lift the ban.

“I would have to weigh whether the degree of violence” outweighs the health benefits of outlawing tobacco, he said.

Smuggling even in ‘supermax’

Drug seizures nearly tripled in the first 11 months of 2011 when compared to all of 2008, jumping from 526 to 1,402. The number of confiscated weapons went from 534 to 1,061 and cellphones from 36 to 201, according to department statistics.

Even at the “supermax” Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, ultrasecure home to the state’s most incorrigible convicts, officials confiscated five cellphones and three chargers last year.

A guard under investigation in one of the phone-smuggling incidents resigned in November, said prison system spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.

Officials believe there are several reasons why seizures are up. They say smuggling is on the rise, but guards also are getting better intelligence from inmate tips that’s leading to more confiscations.

Nobody knows, of course, how much contraband goes undetected.

There’s big money involved in contraband smuggling. For example, guards found a 6-pound package of tobacco last week at a prison honor farm.

Mohr said just one hand-rolled cigarette from that package might sell for $5 in the prisons, even though cash itself is contraband.

Tobacco has become “the No. 1 contraband item of choice,” said Mark Stegemoller, chief investigator at Warren Correctional near Lebanon. “It’s very, very profitable. We just removed a staff member a couple months ago who was making a lot of money bringing in tobacco.”

Tobacco smuggling isn’t illegal, however, so smugglers can’t be criminally charged.

Cellphones are more valuable still. Stegemoller said a cellphone costing $25 on the street can fetch $500-$700 on the prison black market.

Warren and Allen Correctional have recently acquired police dogs trained to sniff out tobacco and cellphones as well as illegal drugs in a pilot program that could expand to other state prisons. It is illegal to convey cellphones into Ohio prisons.

Prison officials in Ohio and elsewhere say cellphone smuggling presents a serious threat because the phones allow inmates to orchestrate crimes outside prison gates, plot escapes and uprisings, intimidate witnesses, public officials and crime victims, and make plans for more smuggling.

They can speak freely on cellphones, while their conversations on prison phone systems are monitored.

“A cellphone is a very dangerous thing in our system,” Kucinic said. “Many times, they can be more dangerous than a shank.”

Illegal cellphones a U.S. epidemic

Cellphone smuggling is reaching epidemic proportions in prisons across the country, and at least one murder was ordered from inside jailhouse walls.

Last year, a New Jersey inmate was sentenced to 14 more years for using a smuggled phone to run an identity-theft ring targeting big-box retailers, allegedly with the help of seven Cleveland residents, the Plain Dealer reported.

Guards at a Georgia prison last summer found eight cellphones stitched up in the belly of a dead cat that had been thrown over a fence. At another Georgia prison, somebody rolled a basketball containing 50 phones through a hole in a perimeter fence.

Inmates at seven Georgia prisons in 2010 also used smuggled phones to stage a simultaneous strike for better pay and working conditions.

In California, legislative analysts found that corrupt prison employees — who, unlike visitors, don’t have to pass through metal detectors — were the main culprits in smuggling phones. More than 10,000 cellphones were confiscated in California prisons in 2010 and, according to Time magazine, one guard admitted to making more than $100,000 in a single year from phone smuggling. Twice in two years, California prison officials found cellphones in the possession of Charles Manson, the cult leader who plotted the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.

In 2010, a South Carolina prison captain in charge of keeping out contraband was shot and nearly killed at his home, an attack ironically planned by an inmate with a smuggled cellphone.

Texas officials found 14 cellphones on death row inmates after one of them made threatening calls to a state senator in 2008.

And in 2007, a Baltimore jail inmate successfully used a smuggled cellphone to hire a hitman to kill a witness in his upcoming trial.

Ohio prison officials have found cellphones hidden inside items like tennis balls and stick-deodorant containers, tossed onto prison yards, and in camouflaged packages, including one that looked like a rock.

Prison officials have explored technology that could jam the signals of unauthorized cellphones, but such technology is expensive, fallible and may not be permitted under Federal Communications Commission regulations.

Some using dogs,low-tech security

In the absence of high-tech security measures, prisons are trying other measures.

At Warren Correctional, investigator Stegemoller uses Dyna, an 18-month-old Dutch shepherd, to sniff out illicit cellphones and tobacco, as well as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Dyna has been working since Nov. 1, homing in on the lithium in cellphone batteries. In a demonstration for Dayton Daily News, Dyna repeatedly and unerringly found cellphones and tobacco Stegemoller hid in a visitation room.

Dyna was purchased, along with a dog for the Lima prison, with a $27,000 grant. Allen Correctional had 117 phones confiscated since 2008, more than one-fourth of the system-wide total of 428.

It’s not clear how effective the dogs will be. Dyna has been responsible for only a handful of seizures so far. However, said Stegemoller: “The dog itself is a deterrent. As soon as I walk into a cellblock (with her), things start flushing and going out the window.”

Operations Deputy Rudy Pringle said during shakedown with the dog around Christmas, inmates “flushed so much stuff, it plugged up our sewage system.”

Prison officials acknowledge it’s a constant struggle to match wits with smugglers. “The prison lifestyle is a hustle,” Kucinic said. “In order to hustle, (inmates) want access to contraband. They’re very creative as to how they get (it) into our system. When you think you’ve got a (smuggling) method figured out, they’ll come up with a new one.”